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Disability & Accessibility: Models of Disability

This guide provides gathers resources for researching disability and accessibility across disciplines.

People think about disability in different ways. Disability studies scholars have outlined theories to explain how disability exists in the world. These theories are called models of disability.

As you research, you'll see scholars mention different disability models. You're unlikely to hear people mention models of disability in casual conversation. However, you will notice thinking that falls into these models.

The list below should get you started thinking about disability models. It is not exhaustive, and many models are related to each other. For more information, explore Models of Disability: Types and Definitions.

Individualistic or Deficit Models

Medical Model

The medical model of disability locates disability in the individual person. According to this model, disability is a medical deficit from a perceived normal. The goal is to cure the individual of their disability.

Addressing this perceived deficit is the responsibility of individual disabled people. If the disabled person can't be cured, then they have to figure out how to overcome barriers they face.

Charity Model

The charity model of disability sees disability as a tragedy, and disabled people as pitiable victims. When non-disabled people help disabled people, it is an act of charity.

Moral Model

The moral model of disability ties disability to a person's character defaults. Disability is seen as a punishment from God or a result of immoral actions.

Economic Model

The economic model of disability focuses on how much a disability prevents a person from working. This model evaluates disability's financial impact to the individual, their employer, and the state.

Social and Related Models

Social Model

The social model of disability locates disability within social spaces and systems. Society's failure to support people with a variety of abilities creates barriers for, or disables, people. Society has a collective responsibility to create environments and social spaces that support full participation.

There are many models that rely on or update the social model, including the identity model, affirmation model, and minority or sociopolitical model.

Human Rights Model

Based on basic human rights principles, "it recognizes that disability is a natural part of human diversity that must be respected and supported in all its forms. People with disability have the same rights as everyone else in society,” and disability “must not be used as an excuse to deny or restrict people's rights.” (Disability Advocacy Resource Unit)

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